Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act ‘an unexpected bonus’



By Chris Chancellor

Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia), a Vietnam War veteran who was awarded the Navy Cross, made the bill one of his prime focuses when he was elected in 2007. One of the bill’s main provisions is 100 percent tuition payment at a four-year public university for those who have served three years on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. The Montgomery GI Bill, which required two years of continuous enrollment, covers a maximum of 36 months of varied financial payments depending on the deal a veteran got when they joined the armed services. It had been in place since 1987, when it was signed into law by President Reagan. Former Mississippi congressman Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery revamped the previous GI Bill. The initial GI Bill was signed into law on June 22, 1944, by President Roosevelt.

“As a 26-year veteran of the United States Air Force who earned my college degree with the help of the GI Bill, I know firsthand how important this opportunity is to our veterans who have so bravely served America,” said Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson in a news release on June 1, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Montgomery GI Bill.

Matt Zimmerman, veterans coordinator at Washington State University, said the new program is even better. Benefits generally last 15 years from the last day of active-duty service for the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which is five years longer than the Montgomery GI Bill.

“For most people, it was an unexpected bonus,” he said. “That was a pleasant surprise that helped them continue their education a little further.”

Zimmerman said only about 15 students at WSU have transitioned from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which went into affect Aug. 1, 2009. Officials at Olympic College and Western Washington University reported similar numbers. One reason for the lower numbers is because there are only a small number of veterans who qualify to make the switch.

Because the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act benefits, which include stipends for housing, books and supplies, are superior, recent veterans are opting for that program. The annual books and supplies stipend of $1,000 is paid based on enrollment.

Wendy Gegenhuber, who is the certifying specialist for Veterans Services at WWU, said most that made the transition from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act did it immediately after the law went into effect. She said some veterans left WWU to join the workforce because they could not afford to pay for their final year after they exhausted their Montgomery GI Bill benefits. Gegenhuber said others that earned their bachelor’s degree used the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act to partially pay for a graduate school.

Switching between the bills simply requires a veteran to submit a VA Form 22-1990. Once veterans leave the Montgomery GI Bill, they cannot change back. Not all eligible veterans chose to transition away from the Montgomery GI Bill. Zimmerman said some are comfortable with the benefits they are receiving and do not see the need to switch.

Wendy McFadden, veterans program specialist at Olympic College, said each case is different. She said some veterans might have done a “buy-up” to enhance their benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill, which might make a transition pointless. Others who are at the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act 60 percent tier or less might be better off staying with the Montgomery GI Bill.

“There’s really no one answer,” McFadden said. “Veterans are in different places in terms of what kind of benefits they’re going to receive.”

She gives interested enrolling veterans a PowerPoint presentation to explain the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. McFadden encourages new students — and others interested in transitioning from the Montgomery GI Bill — to visit for breakdowns and comparisons between benefits.

“You need to put those benefits side by side to see what they entail,” she said.

Zimmerman agreed.

“You need to go back and run the numbers with your own pocketbook and see what is best for you,” he said.

One issue with the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act has been late payments. Many students enrolled in summer classes posted on Facebook that they had not received their living stipends to pay rents. Colleges also had not received tuition payments from the VA.

Zimmerman attributes those issues to the volume of benefits the VA is dealing with. He said 30 percent of students using Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act benefits at WSU are dependents of veterans. Dependents are eligible to use those benefits if a veteran has at least six years of service in the Armed Forces on the date of approval and agree to serve four more years; have at least 10 years of service in the Armed Forces; or become eligible for retirement through July 31 and agrees to more service time depending on their retirement date.

The VA also reported that more than 25,000 unemployed veterans from 35 to 60 years old applied for benefits since May 15 through a joint VA and Department of Labor program that focuses on retraining as many as 99,000 veterans for high-demand jobs.

“This important milestone demonstrates how meaningful this tool will be to help our nation’s unemployed veterans receive the education and training they need to find rewarding employment in a high-demand career market,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said in a news release. “Veterans realize this is a great opportunity to hone the skills they need to be competitive in the job market and this program contributes directly to enhancing the strength of our nation’s economy.”

According to the VA’s Facebook page, those issues — and not a technical glitch — have resulted in the delays its officials expect to be resolved soon. The VA had a record 3.4 million education claims last year and that number has increased 13 percent this year, according to its Facebook page.

While the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act pays tuition and fees directly to all-public school in-state students, benefits are capped at $18,077.50 for the 2012-13 school year. Students attending private schools in several states other than Washington state are eligible to be reimbursed for either the actual cost of the program or the maximum in-state tuition and fee reimbursement, whichever is greater.

There also is a Survivors and Dependents Assistance program, which provides up to 45 months of educational and training opportunities to spouses and children of certain veterans. That can be used to obtain a degree or certification program, apprenticeship and on-the-job training. To be eligible, a veteran must have been killed or permanently disabled while they were in active service with the Armed Forces. Other circumstances where dependents can gain eligibility include when a service member goes missing in action or is captured in the line of duty, or when a veteran is forcibly detained or interned in the line of duty by a foreign power.

Children of veterans seeking benefits must be 18 to 26 years old. Benefits end for spouses 10 years from the date the VA determines eligibility or from the date of death of the veteran. Spouses can remain eligible for 20 years from the date the VA rated a veteran permanently disabled, with an effective date of three years from discharge. Both children and spouses should complete a VA Form 22-5490 and return it to the VA regional office.